Mainstreaming Kids with ASD May be Harmful Unless Culture Improved

New research suggests that policies that put children with special needs into classrooms with their peers who have no disabilities, may be harmful to the children unless schools develop programs to create a culture of acceptance.

Proponents of mainstreaming have focused on the possible benefits for both traditional and special needs students by co-mingling the students into the regular classroom.

The new study, published in the journal Autism, finds that more needs to be done as negative school experiences can have harmful long-term effects on pupils with Autism Spectrum Conditions.

Researchers from the University of Surrey found that experiences of social and emotional exclusion in mainstream schools can adversely affect how pupils with autism view themselves. The detrimental self-perception can increase their risk of developing low self-esteem, a poor sense of self-worth, and mental health problems.

Examining 17 previous studies in the area, researchers discovered that how pupils with autism view themselves is closely linked to their perceptions of how other’s treat and interact with them.

They found that a tendency of many pupils with the condition tend to internalize the negative attitudes and reactions of others toward them. This perception, combined with unfavorable social comparisons to classmates, leads to a sense of being “different” and more limited than peers.

Negative self-perception can lead to increased isolation and low self-esteem making pupils with autism more susceptible to mental health problems.

Researchers discovered that the physical environment of schools can also impact a children’s ability to interact with other pupils and succeed in school. For example, sensory sensitivity, which is a common characteristic of autism and can magnify sounds to an intolerable level. This in turn, can lead to everyday classroom and playground noises such as shrieks and chatter to becoming a source of anxiety and distraction.

The sensitivity to a loud environment can impact a pupil’s ability to concentrate in the classroom and ability to socialize with others, further increasing isolation and a sense of being “different.”

Investigators did discovered benefits from mainstreaming as pupils with autism developed supportive friendships and felt accepted by classmates. This bonding helped the ASD child alleviate their social difficulties and made them feel good about themselves.

These findings suggest it is crucial for schools to create a culture of acceptance for all pupils to ensure the long-term wellbeing of pupils with autism in mainstream settings.

Lead author of the paper Dr. Emma Williams, from the University of Surrey, said: “Inclusive mainstream education settings may inadvertently accentuate the sense of being ‘different’ in a negative way to classmates.

“We are not saying that mainstream schools are ‘bad’ for pupils with autism, as other evidence suggests they have a number of positive effects, including increasing academic performance and social skills.

“Rather, we are suggesting that by cultivating a culture of acceptance of all and making small changes, such as creating non-distracting places to socialise, and listening to their pupils’ needs, schools can help these pupils think and feel more positively about themselves.

“With over 100,000 children in the UK diagnosed with autism, it is important that we get this right to ensure that pupils with autism get the education they deserve and leave school feeling accepted, loved, and valued, rather than with additional mental health issues.”

Source: University of Surrey